Getting Gritty with it: the real thing

So here’s a thing. I’ve begun some long overdue editing work. It’s kinda boring, because it’s editing, y’all, but I discovered something. In doing this, I want to start writing again. The editor of the book is a personal friend and writing colleague, and the book is about a particular form of qualitative research called Narrative Inquiry, which is my thing.

Narrative Inquiry methods “story” the data and findings. In lay terms, we make meaning of social science research by putting raw data into a readily readable narrative for humans to connect to. In true terms it’s of course a rather messy and frustrating approach to analyse data but in meaning-making it beats most quantitative studies in the social sciences, because in the end quantitative researchers, with all their numbers, still have to put their discussions of the findings in ways that make it meaningful to humans. In narrative form. Often in the form of storied case studies, that sort of thing. Which Narrative Inquiry does from the get-go. Does it make the research any less rigorous? No, however, there may be ways of interpreting the research that quantitative researchers find using other means. Now, remember folks, I said the SOCIAL SCIENCES. NOT medical or earth sciences, or biotech or any kind of tech, really. Medicine and biological sciences need quantitative data much more than, arguably, the social sciences do.

As I’m sitting here doing the editing (which has to be done in little increments because it’s impossible to focus for more than an hour at a time on the stuff without losing the will to live), I’m all fired up and excited about writing again. I’ve offered to write a chapter in the book – according to my friend the volume’s a little short, so I’ve taken the bait. I had originally offered to write something about 100 years ago but I wasn’t in a good emotional space to be doing that, so I never submitted an abstract. I’ve given myself a 2 week turnaround for a rough draft of 8000 words. This doesn’t seem overly onerous, but there’s a whole heap of extra research and reading to do.

For every article I reference, there’s about 5 I read and discard. So if I include 50 references then I’ll need to read up to 250 articles for this chapter. Luckily I already know the field so more than half of the references are stored away in my brain somewhere, to be dragged out as a hoarder drags out his favourite rusting, teensy doo-dad from under the piles of equally rusting detritus, which he kept just in case. I’m going to send my friend the rough draft in early March and she can make the decision as to whether it’s good enough for inclusion. It’s a tight turn-around but it’s doable. The review process might be problematic because it’s usually very slow but the editors will no doubt send it to someone in the field who is known to do things quickly.

Seriously. It’s not as if I have better things to do with my time.

On the the Live Below the Line thing. I’ve been having another think about my starchy foods, and I’ve taken a little inventory of the food I usually eat on a normal day. Toast, eggs, sandwiches, pasta. I’m thinking I could buy a loaf of day-old bread from the bakery (cheap as chips), and some ready-made pasta, and this will do me just fine for 5 days with the other things. I’ll need to get fighting fit for the challenge. Perhaps a 2-day challenge to see how I cope with no coffee and wine? Not that this will hurt me, as my girth is back to its old chubster state.

I’m thinking on it. As you may have noticed, I’m a problem solver and this problem is rather delicious to play with. Also worthy. And as a cis-heteronormative white woman living near the 1% dream, I have very few excuses to shirk my duty as concerned world citizen. 😉


Some pitfalls of ethical research

This could also be titled “when research participants get in the way”. My work on my narratives was nearly done, and as is the wont with narrative inquiry methods – or even case study – the ethical, respectful thing to do is send your draft narratives to your participants so that they can comment on what they’ve said, or report inaccuracies in the text. It’s the final piece of the ethical research puzzle and provides valuable validity to your findings.

So, about a year ago I sent my drafts to my participants for a read and possible discussion, and got a great response from one and an interesting response from another. I changed that person’s draft in response to their not unreasonable opinion that the draft was a bit long winded and lacked shape. (Love it when they comment on your actual writing style!). A few more minor edits to protect the innocent and there you are.

The other participants did not respond. So, this year after redrafting the narratives all quite heavily I sent through my final drafts to the participants. Well, it’s nice to see one came back with a “congratulations!”. There you go.

But the next respondent, boy oh boy. Every single sentence they uttered has been altered. Some to the point of not even sounding like it comes from a human. What do you do? In deference to the participant, I need to look at the work as a whole and consider what altering the text will do to my findings.

So, I’ve taken the road frequently travelled in narrative inquiry and looked at what is important to the study but keeps the humanity of the spoken word. I’ve removed things that hurt the innocent – in other words if my participant feels what they said at the time was unfair or contentious, then I’ve changed it to reflect the participant’s wish. That’s reasonable. It isn’t hurting my findings too much, rather, it’s tempering the language to be more moderate and being fair to those who cannot respond.

Where the participant changed the text to improve an explanation of a technical concept and it’s not too different from the original I’ve changed it too. However, my dear participant has removed all of the lovely interjections and language style that makes the narrative sing and gives it its power. The participant wanted to reflect that the narrative will be read, not spoken. But for me this is one step too far. This is where the participant gets in the way.

I’ve chosen to ignore some of the participant’s edits – they lose the beauty and movement of the participant’s lyrical speech patterns, but I’ve occasionally added an extra thing in the commentary that they had written in the edits, to provide greater clarity to the spoken text. That way the spoken word is maintained, but the participant’s revised word is still included. And booyah! I’ve found places where my text is lacking explanation or analysis of the text. Goodoh.

It’s difficult, though, because what if the intent, beauty and power of the original statement is lost in translation? That’s the great dilemma and one of the pitfalls of ethical research.

The recursive nature of narrative analysis

I found this draft in my drafts folder and thought it looked pretty good. Plus, it’s short.

I’ve been writing up my discussion chapter. It’s getting big. I’m a bit of a word count freak as my institution is a stickler for theses not exceeding 80000 words, but I’m thinking this is getting a little close, even for me. I’m 5000 words down, which is only putting down all the things my participants said and did in the study without even beginning to analyse them. There’s lots to analyse. This could blow out.

I found in this analytical process it was necessary to go back to my narratives – which I had thought to all intents and purposes were finished. They weren’t. They were a bit overblown and weren’t getting to the nub of the concepts I was trying to discuss. I’m not sure, even after spending the best part of 2 weeks cleaning them up, that my final product is any less awkward, but I can’t really see a way through to express all the findings I want to express without referring to their data in the way that I have. I am a story-teller, but each of these stories have 2 big characters and a substantial mise en scene I am struggling to set.

So now I’m discovering the recursive nature of this narrative approach. Just as I think I’ve pulled from the data all the stuff I’ve found, I realise that in my haste to reduce bloat I’ve removed some vital link between culture and environment or something. Ugh. But recursion is surely the name of the game in this approach. Or is it like this for all research?

My room of my own

Today I’m down at my folks’ beach house, in a room of my own. And I’m working. I am sitting at a desk in front of a lovely large window from which I can see green. It’s nice.

Here’s a photo.

A room of my ownPoppy my groodle sits under my feet and I have made good progress on another of my narrative chapters, which should make it easier to shape the discussion chapter. Here’s hoping, at any rate. So, I’ve been aiming for 500 words per day. I had thought to ADD those words, but at this rate, I’ve been EXCISING them from my narratives. This is a good thing, actually. The narratives are holding together better and they are less wordy. I’ve paraphrased quite a bit of the quotes and removed others altogether. And I’ve reshaped the commentary. It hurts, but many times I’ve had to look at the quotes and wonder why they are in there. Do I need it? Does it help? Usually it doesn’t.

So out they go. But with one particularly powerful narrative, the voice of the teacher is so strong and profound I dread to remove the quotes. So I think I might reduce other aspects of the narrative altogether. Fun, fun fun.

Lunch, then back to work. It’s great working at my parent’s beach house. It’s not my house, so I don’t feel bad about how messy it is (that’s my mother’s mess, not mine). I don’t feel the need to clean, except my own grot, and there aren’t other things getting in the way. Everyone is leaving me alone. Perfect. But there are people here and an expectation that I will work. And I am.

Well, ok. I may have spent a few hours reading my fantasy novels – Stephen Donaldson and George RR Martin, you have a LOT to answer for – but their writing is good for me to see. Stephen Donaldson’s writing is rather overwrought. It is grammatically correct, but I’m getting sick of words like demesne and puissance. Just say domain and power, for goodness’ sake. Martin’s writing is fabulous. I hated it at first, thinking his first novel in his series GoT rather crappy fantasy style, but actually, it is amazing. I’m liking his work more and more. I’ve seen the series, hated the rather stereotypical and archetypal characters he had drawn, and REALLY hated the gratuitous sex scenes and nakedness, but now I see how he draws his characters. I GET how he has been inspired by the War of the Roses, and I think – scarily – that he has drawn a frankly barbaric account of the European middle ages. Which I suspect is rather accurate in its barbarity. I love it. And I love the teeny tiny bit of magic he weaves into his stories so that the fantasy element stays alive throughout the many descriptions of battles and political intrigue. And I love his characters. I have the first three books out of 6 he has currently written (book 3 divided into 2 tomes) and I can’t wait to read beyond the Red Wedding because his books give no real indication of how awful Walder Frey really is. The TV series is a wonderful accompaniment to the novels despite the many small changes made to accommodate narrative flow in TV.

Right. So easy for me to stray off the path of good intentions! Back to work I go.

Revisiting old ground

Hello, narratives.

Discovered a lovely thing about my narrative chapters, visiting them after a long break: they’re too long. I can cut them down by paraphrasing lots of the participant quotes (even though the quotes themselves are fine), and by reshaping or re-analysing the text.

So I will. At 15000 words each, they’re too long. I WAS warned. My book chapters and journal articles are much better, cleaner, leaner, meaner. Time to remove, renovate, reword. 13000 words should do it. See below for the red pen of death.


By George I think she did it!

She did it, indeed she did.

I submitted my methods chapter to my supervisor. All 9500 words of it. I feel elated and a bit miserable at the same time. Maybe the misery is the hunger bit. I’m starving and still in my PJs because I thought to myself this morning: “Just sit down and start. It’ll all be over in a bit”. And now, it is.

I will have to wait quite a while for the response because, frankly, I’m not sure I’d respond to me if I took so long to write one chapter, but I’m just happy that it’s one chapter down. That makes 4 good chapter drafts out of 7 completed. And what I mean by good, is that I’m happy enough with them that if they were submitted today I’d be able to hold my head high.

Happy happy joy joy. Plus, DH has written 2 articles that we are submitting with my names on them too, which is a nice little present. And now beloved husband has suggested an antiques centre trawl. He knows me too well!


What a difference a day makes!

Ok, now I’m not feeling gloomy about my methods chapter. I read it against another narrativist whose methods chapter I thought was AWESOME and mine totally stacks up against it just fine. Mine could probably use some culling, but it’s basically done. I’ve done the conclusion and I’m finding all the references I’ve not included and putting them in at the end so that my supervisor knows I’ve done the referencing right.

I’m a very happy camper. In other great news, I had a haircut today, and what with my new physique and improved wardrobe, I feel like a hotty again. I really do. Just need to stop eating the sweet delights AND the wine. Maybe one a day, but not both, and not multiples. Otherwise food is also going well. Here’s a photo of me (finally, because I now feel awesome enough to put myself out there) – not the whole body shot because I can’t take selfies that work, but a head shot of my nice new hairdo.


I’m having a great day.


Feeling gloomy about Methods chapters.

Today I’ve been working on my methods chapter. I’ve headers for all the relevant sections and I feel like I’m on the right track mostly but I also feel there is a heap of information I’m forgetting to include. Driving me batty. Also, I’ve written 8500 words and I’m kinda sick of writing any more.

So, I’m doing narrative inquiry methods, right? So, narrative inquiry is an approach that requires the “storying” of data, because it’s perceived that it’s through stories, or narratives, that we make sense of the world. For Bruner (1996), he even sees our brains having “computational” knowledge and “narrative” knowledge. It’s a great theory for understanding human nature throughout history, I guess, and for those cultures with an oral history, you can see the power of narrative to shape culture, understanding and knowledge.

Ok, so writing stories is quite simple in theory, yeah? Except that in narrative inquiry methods, one has to attend to a bunch of things including the recursive nature of writing, being in the field, the ethics of narrative research, spaciality, temporality and sociality, and other stuff like bumps and tensions in the data. Now, I’m forgetting what I need to write about in detail and I’m concerned that my headers are all over the shop re how the chapter is organised. Stupid, simple stuff but I’m finding it difficult to write about narrative methods because it’s slippery.

I suspect I’m at the part where, yes Jessie, send the damned thing to your supervisor so she can read it and identify the missing links!!!! I’ve still not written the conclusion to my chapter yet. It’s going to be short.

Fraudulence is the new black.

Feeling like a fraud today – reading the wonderful work of two narrative inquirers and the extraordinary efforts they made in their methods chapters, I’m feeling as if I can’t even string two words together and not only because I’ve seriously underestimated the number of references required in this chapter. It’s hard to write a methods chapter when one has approximately 2 articles at one’s disposal and one book. Mea culpa, of course. But worse, my capacity to write like a researcher has become rather crapola. Used to be able to do it – not any more.

Normally I like process work such as what Methods chapters offer, but in this case I’m hating it.

Rather glum, and have just discovered DH is coming home to quietly die with some gastric ailment. Looks like no dinner date for us tonight!